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Closing ‘holes’ in porous borders requires co-operation

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Picture: Timothy Bernard / African News Agency (ANA) / Taken on January 4, 2021 – Beitbridge border crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Due to a poor border fence which Minster Aaron Motswaledi visited and dubbed a ‘Washing line’ for its poor construct, many travellers exploit broken parts of the fence and risk their lives as they cross the crocodile infested Limpopo River.

By B Dekela Majuqwana

This past week, local and global media outlets reported on South Africa’s Border Management Authority (BMA) intercepting buses transporting some 443 unaccompanied children at the Beitbridge crossing on the border with Zimbabwe.

South Africa’s borders have become notorious for being open and unprotected.

Criminals have for some time been doing as they please, with regular reports of illegal migrants from countries as far as Ethiopia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and others walking into South Africa unchecked. Up to now, the criminal incidents have involved only foreign men.

There have also been cases where criminals have been caught smuggling stolen luxury cars from South Africa to countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Others, such as Prophet Shepherd Bushiri from Malawi, have used South Africa’s porous borders to evade justice in South Africa. Bushiri is enjoying himself in Malawi under the protection of his country.

It is the first time that the trafficking of children has featured on this massive scale in South Africa. Indeed, the interception of these children might signal at least one of two things:

  • Criminals are becoming more daring as they feel they own South Africa’s borders and can escalate human trafficking to new, more dangerous levels targeting children.
  • The work of the BMA is gathering momentum as the agency is becoming better at preventing and detecting cross-border criminality. Either way, it is good news to see the BMA appearing to be taking its work seriously and keeping the South African public up to date.

Perhaps there is a need to delve deeper into the story of the 443 children to establish the truth about their origins, identity and parentage. According to some reports, the children were carried in 42 buses originating from Zimbabwe.

It is thought that the children might have been placed on the buses to come to South Africa to join relatives during the festive season.

It is, however, difficult to understand how the parents or relatives came to take the security of their children for granted.

Indeed, when travelling within South Africa, there are strict procedures for transporting children on public transport locally and over long distances.

A verifiable identity and contact details of the parents or guardian are a primary requirement. In this case, it appears this was not the case. It would appear the children were discovered by the BMA but were allowed passage by the Zimbabwean side.

All this suggests that the BMA is single-handedly dealing with border problems without the co-operation of the Zimbabwean side. If this is the case, it suggests that the BMA will, in the long run, struggle to control our borders if its efforts are undermined by neighbouring countries.

It is difficult to imagine that Zimbabweans do not care about the physical security of their children. However, if they do care, it is perhaps likely that smuggling people, including Zimbabwean children, adults and goods, across the border has become a big criminal enterprise.

The criminal nature of the enterprise appears to thrive on the most vulnerable people among Zimbabweans, people who, perhaps out of ignorance, find themselves taken advantage of and are misled to undertake risky journeys out of their country.

It would be a welcome development if the BMA were to issue regular detailed reports of the big cross-border cases to expose the identity of the criminals, in particular the bus operators and their partners in crime.

Public reports of this nature are useful because they go beyond meeting the needs to back up court cases in the respective countries. They also serve to inform a wider debate on the nature of cross-border criminals and what to do to prevent it from harming the interests of neighbouring countries.

There is an urgent need to gauge the scale of cross-border criminality and the extent to which human trafficking is involved.

It is extremely concerning that there appears to be no established cross-border policing procedures and protocols in the countries of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) community.

Without cross-border policing, and related activities to ensure co-operation on a region wide justice system, it is a small wonder the SADC is hardly worth the paper it is written on.

The value of cross-border policing is primarily to prevent the use of borders as a haven for criminals operating in neighbouring countries.

There is, however, a cost associated with all policing and execution of justice. It appears each country suffers its own financial pain silently but there is no sharing of the criminal cost burden.

The presence of many foreign nationals in South Africa, including many Zimbabweans, is not matched by similar numbers of South Africans residing in neighbouring countries. This means that South Africa is single-handedly carrying the burden of SADC policing and justice. Indeed, the fact that the BMA took responsibility for identifying unaccompanied children in buses from Zimbabwe underscores this point.

The cost of immigration, whether legal or not, to South Africa is huge and is probably rising. If this is the case, it is highly likely that the sustainability of agencies such as the BMA, SAPS and others will, in time, fall because of escalating costs. As we all know, the revenue base of the South African government is also in decline because of declining national productivity, a consequence of the unrelenting electricity crisis that remains with us.

In fact, if we add the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, the economy requires extremely drastic measures to be in reasonable shape. Investing in reducing regional SADC-wide cross-border criminality is definitely one such priority to achieve economic recovery.

Prof B Dekela Majuqwana is a founding member of the National Union of Scientists and Engineers